September saw me migrating to Islay, like the geese, though I was only there for three days: the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. I give it its full name because I love this festival, and I doubt it could happen without the sponsorship of Lagavulin, one of the distilleries on the island. Also, at each gig, they hand out drama of Lagavulin, one of my favourite whiskies, so that’s even more reason to thank them! I think Lagavulin deserve a lot of praise for supporting jazz in a pretty remote part of Scotland, so in case you missed it, it’s the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. (I should point that I have no connection with Lagavulin whatsoever. But should they wish to thank me for my support, a bottle would always be welcome…)
It is a very special event. Because it is remote – a two hour ferry trip from the mainland – and the ferry port is itself three hours drive from Glasgow, you have to want to get there. There is little passing trade. The islanders welcome the festival, both for the music and for the tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy. (The other being whisky – which also brings a lot of tourists.)
The gigs are put on in small, unusual venues: distillery visitor centres, the RSPB reserve, village halls, the Gaelic centre. The audience, too, is relatively small, and one sees the same faces at different gigs – and different years. People go back year after year; I think this is the seventh time I have made the trip in twelve years.
The small venues and audience mean that each gig has an intimate feel; and the sponsorship means that one can see internationally renowned artists in circumstances that are hard to imagine anywhere else. It is a privilege to go to these gigs.
Over three days I caught five gigs by four bands, two of which were really the same. The festival kicked off with Trio Libero, an improvising band costing of Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax, Michel Battina on bass and Seb Rochford on drums. I had seen Sheppard and Rochford play in a trio before; this outing was a much more rewarding experience. Sheppard’s is necessarily the main voice, but both other players are central. Indeed, Rochford’s minimalistic playing is key: at times it seemed as if he was barely playing, but he made every note, every space count. They moved from bebop tunes to free(ish) improvisation, a joy throughout.
The artists on Islay frequently pay in a variety of ensembles, the programmers mixing them around in new settings. But this was the first time I saw something new: two different ensembles which comprised the same three people. Debuting first as the Callum Gourlay Trio and then playing the following day as the Kit Downes Trio, the tag team of Gourlay on bass, Downes on piano and James Maddren on drums were a revelation. The first gig saw them playing mostly Gourlay’s tunes with a couple of standards added in. Gourlay’s writing showed real depth and maturity, with some beautiful tunes; his playing was excellent too – he played Charlie Haden’s “Chairman Mao” as an exquisite solo.
The mood changed a little under Downes’ leadership, in a gig that featured mostly his tunes. I have seen him play several times in different bands, but I think this was the first time I had the opportunity to see him lead a trio. It was impressive.
Bassist Mario Caribe lead a trio with trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Mario is the one musician – possibly the one person – who has been to every year’s Islay jazz festival, in one guide or another. He played three trio gigs this year, and I caught the first. Featuring several of Steele’s tunes, including excerpts of his Islay suite from his Stramash recording, a bunch of Mario’s and some standards, this was a comfortable afternoon gig: it had a lovely relaxed feel about it. Stephen worked some guitar trickery with a bundle of pedals that balanced Caribe and Steele’s unamplified instruments.
The promoters had long wanted to get the Esbjorn Svennson Trio to Islay, and had discussed it several times with the band; Svennson’s untimely death in 2007 stopped that from happening, but EST’s drummer, Magnus Ostrom made the trip this year. Headlining two nights at different venues, the Magnus Ostrom Band were perhaps a curious choice for Islay. Their large amount of electronic equipment filled the two stages they played, and at times looked dangerously overloaded. A mixture of jazz, folk and prog-rock, they have quite a dark sound. Ostrom plays drums with a powerful intensity; he uses brushes unlike any other drummer. He looks pained as he plays, as if exorcising inner demons.
Aside from Ostrom’s insistent drumming, the major musical voice is that of guitarist Andreas Houdarkis. Bringing the main prog vibe, Houdarkis uses lots of pedals to create a rich sound, balanced by the jazz-oriented acoustic piano of Daniel Karlsson. It was a moving performance.